As the ongoing crises of racial injustice and the coronavirus pandemic confront many U.S. cities, there is a third risk that is also on the mind of many at the moment—the potential for climate and environmental disasters to hit communities already experiencing other emergencies. The Salt Lake City area experienced a magnitude 5.7 earthquake in March just days after national and state public emergencies were declared in response to the coronavirus pandemic; Los Angeles also experienced a similar-sized earthquake in June.

To help municipalities in the Salt Lake City region create a more resilient and equitable disaster response to this and future earthquakes, ULI Utah—with the support of the Institute’s Urban Resilience Program—brought in local and national experts for a webinar on how Utah and other seismically vulnerable places can start preparing today for the “Big One” that could arrive any day.

A recording of this presentation is available on demand to members on ULI Knowledge Finder.

“The earthquake that occurred in Utah’s capital city in March of this year gave us the opportunity to pause, think, and reflect on the importance of making our cities safer and more resilient. This earthquake wasn’t the ‘big one’ that has been predicted, but its impact focused our attention on the need for continual improvements in the way we plan, construct, and maintain our cities in the intermountain area,” says Ibi Guevara, chair of ULI Utah and vice president of business development and marketing at Hunt Electric.

One of the most important takeaways from the immediate local response to the March earthquake was managing public expectations about local and federal assistance. “People were looking for someone to walk in the door and start handling their property issues immediately; they were looking for the FEMA trucks,” says Greg Schulz, municipal administrator of Magna Metro Township, the epicenter of the earthquake. However, local governments are the primary coordinators of disaster response, and federal disaster assistance will kick in only after a federal declaration of disaster is made, often many months later.

Although Schulz mentioned that “local governments are not insurance, and we don’t have the ability to make you whole” with regard to property damages, there is a lot that municipalities can do, like joining the National Flood Insurance Program or making sure that emergency response and resilience plans are in place.

Uniquely for Magna, the township was officially designated in 2017 and thus had no emergency operations plans or memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with county or state agencies. However, Magna acted quickly to connect with these authorities and key local nonprofit organizations in historic preservation to set up a revolving loan fund for low- or no-interest loans to property owners, within 30 days of the earthquake.

Communication with the public was key, achieved through press conferences with councilmembers and experts, and through setting up an online reporting form through which residents can report damages, which streamlined information management for local government.

Communication was also a core strategy for Los Angeles’s earthquake resilience strategy Resilience by Design, according to Marissa Aho, former chief resilience officer (CRO) with Los Angeles (and current CRO with Houston). Aho defined resilience (see ULI’s 10 Principles for Building Resilience for a longer introduction to resilience) as the ability to “survive, adapt, and thrive no matter what shocks or stresses are encountered.”

Aho described how in 2018 the city launched the first-ever publicly available earthquake early-warning app, ShakeAlert, which has since been expanded statewide. L.A. also worked with major telecom providers (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile) to both raise construction standards for new cell towers and provide network-sharing capabilities during emergencies so that residents do not lose access to cell and data networks.

A second major aspect of L.A.’s resilience strategy was retrofitting older building types that were banned during the 1970s and 1990s, but roughly 13,500 remain from before bans took effect.

The city passed a 2015 ordinance to require retrofits to these structures within seven years and has created programs to support property owners in making the upgrades. Aho noted that these buildings “are essentially naturally occurring affordable housing” covering roughly half a million residents, so there is exceptional value in preserving them given the area’s challenges with affordable housing and homelessness.

Considerable progress has been made so far. “In just a few years, 4,279 buildings have been retrofitted,” said Aho, and similar efforts are ongoing in other California cities like San Francisco and Santa Monica.

Retrofits are essential for a city’s older building stock, but new construction and building codes can also push for seismic resilience at much lower cost, according to Ibrahim Almufti, associate principal engineer with Arup, lead of Arup San Francisco’s Risk and Resilience practice.

“Modern building codes focus only on life safety, and not on resilience, which [in this case] is the ability of an organization to get back into a building after an earthquake,” says Almufti. In response, Arup and partners developed the REDi rating system, a resilience-based design approach for going beyond building code to achieve higher-performing buildings.

Much like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard for sustainable buildings, REDi uses a set of criteria to minimize both building damage and downtime, or the amount of time passed before a building can be safely reoccupied. The rating system assigns a tier (Silver, Gold, or Platinum) based on how well a building can continue providing its core services after an earthquake.

“The mission for REDi is to empower stakeholders and lower the barrier to entry to achieve resilience for their organizations and the buildings that house them,” Almufti says.

A leading example of the rating system is 181 Fremont, a REDi Gold–rated, earthquake-resilient mixed-use tower developed by Jay Paul Company, for which Almufti served as engineering project manager. With 181 Fremont, a number of design strategies were incorporated, including a flexible steel skeleton, innovative new damped megabraces (essentially shock absorbers for earthquake energy), and a host of others that aim to ensure that the building remains undamaged even by large earthquakes.

Almufti also noted the strong business case for developers in seismically active regions to go beyond code. “We set a precedent that was well recognized and valued by the public, but also by the developer,” he says. Jay Paul Company was able to successfully market 181 Fremont for its resilience features, and found that the building’s design achievement allowed them to retain tenants and buyers and reduce their insurance premiums by roughly 20 percent. Upfront costs for added seismic resilience features are usually under 5 percent, and in this case, 181 Fremont’s features will pay for themselves within six years, easily justifying the investment.

As to the difficulties of the moment, Marissa Aho noted that “there are a lot of shocks and stresses going on in the world right now,” and it may be difficult to manage it all. However, she emphasized that “our most vulnerable people . . . are disproportionately affected by any disruption, whether earthquakes, floods, or loss of jobs,” and these communities should be prioritized in order to “do this work in an equitable way.”